Lebanon School District Sued Over Excessive Truancy Fines

01/20/2011 05:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

LEBANON, Pa. — A federal lawsuit accuses a Pennsylvania school district of imposing excessive and illegal fines on truant children or their families, including one parent ordered to pay $27,000 and a 17-year-old student fined more than $12,000.

The suit against the Lebanon School District, filed Thursday in Harrisburg by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia on behalf of four parents and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, targets the court-imposed fines it says were above the state's limit of $300 per violation.

The suit seeks a class-action declaration and the return of any illegal money that the south-central Pennsylvania district collected. It also asks the court to stop the district from trying to collect any fines that violate state law and remain unpaid.

Superintendent Marianne Bartley has denied any wrongdoing by the district and referred calls Thursday to a lawyer. The lawyer, Rebecca Young, said that some of the law center's information in its public statements is inaccurate, but that she had not seen a copy of the lawsuit and could not comment on it.

Many state truancy laws allow fines or even jail; Pennsylvania allows penalties to be imposed after three unexcused absences.

The maximum penalty is $300 per unexcused absence, and the fine can be imposed on parents, as well as children 13 or older. As an alternative, a judge can order parents to complete a parenting education program or to perform community service. If a parent does not comply, a judge can order up to five days in jail.

If parents can show that they took every reasonable step to get their kids to attend class, they cannot be penalized. In extreme cases, a judge could order a child removed from a home.

The district did not try to work with parents, as recommended by the state, before taking them to court, the law center said. Rather, it seemed more interested in punishing the students and their parents than trying to encourage better attendance, the law center said.

The Lebanon reduced some fines in 2009 after the NAACP complained, but law center attorney Michael Churchill said the district didn't return at least $107,000 in illegal fines or end its efforts to collect another $127,000 in illegal fines.

The district's policies have affected parents of all races, and the plaintiffs are not all minorities, Churchill said. Some parents complained to the NAACP, which then turned to the Law Center. The district stopped imposing illegal fines in the past year, he said.

"I will say our clients are pleased by that reaction, but they are disturbed that there continue to be huge number of fines that ... were a violation of the state limit," Churchill said Thursday.

Over the past six years, the law center said, the district hauled parents and students into court more than 8,000 times, resulting in more than $1.3 million in fines.

Besides imposing illegal fines, the district has enforced payment with jail, even getting one person incarcerated for 85 days, the law center said.

The 17-year-old fined more than $12,000 is not a plaintiff, nor is the parent who was ordered to pay $27,000 in fines because she didn't have $70 to pay for a home-schooling evaluation.

One plaintiff, Omary Rodriguez Fuentes, has paid $1,064 in fines from her disability income and still owes $5,927 for 29 truancy citations, the suit said. She is the parent of three current students and one former student in the district.

The New York-based Vera Institute of Justice issued a policy paper in October after analyzing that state's truancy program and suggested that punishment is counterproductive, even though the most common responses to teenage chronic absence around the country is punitive.